All About Upcycle Exchanges

What's the big idea? Where did it get it's start?

The Upcycle Exchange was conceived by Autumn Wiggins in 2009 as a pilot program aimed at creating a cradle-to-cradle inspired production concept for the indie craft community. The initial premise was that individuals could receive incentives, such as discounts on merchandise or other perks, when they gather and submit materials that crafters use to create handmade merchandise.

As head writer for Crafting a Green World and founder/coordinator of Strange Folk Festival, Autumn witnessed many issues facing crafters trying to create sustainable merchandise. She noticed a lot of strain involved in finding consistent sources for the post-consumer supplies they were seeking. Many were spending a lot of time and money scouring thrift stores, or settling for new materials. She set out to devise a scalable web-based system to have supplies brought to them. Her years of experience as a PC tech and web developer enabled her to deploy the concept for next to nothing. Doing so using Linux and other open source software inspired her aim to share the idea freely with others.

UE began it’s ad-hoc operation within a circuit of St. Louis area craft shows. Crafters would digitally submit their wish-lists before each show, which were then compiled, published, and promoted along with the event. At the show, UE would collect empty boxes from participating crafters, which were labeled with their names and individual lists, and set up a drop-off and sorting station near the entrance. The Wish-lists were an interesting mixture of unique requests, such as license plates or road maps, and commonly used materials, like fabric and yarn. As supplies came in, unique requests were sorted into the participants’ boxes, and common supplies were displayed on tables. At the end of the event, participants would pick up their boxes, now filled with the specific items they asked for, and choose from a variety of common supplies to suite their tastes. Often there was an abundance of common supplies, and other artists from the show were invited to take home any leftovers. This worked well for a year, with very little left over in the end, until Upcycle began getting more well-known, and drop-offs increased beyond the capacity to sort and distribute during the events. As of yet, there was no outside interest in using the concept, and it’s easy to understand why. It was too much work to continue doing pro-bono. Though not the original intent, opening a shop suddenly seemed viable.

So, Autumn mulled over her options. A non-profit? She didn’t like the bureaucracy and fund-raising required. She wanted complete creative freedom and personal incentive to create a beautiful, organized space for collected materials, and knew this could be accomplished by utilizing data about what crafters were actually looking for, not simply seeing potential in any and all refuse.

This set the stage for the store, but how would things be priced? Autumn had shopped at re-use centers that sold materials both by flat volume, and weight rates. Neither seemed to determine an accurate value. It’s easy to get into trouble – taking more of an item than you need because it’s cheap. Things that are simply large or heavy can be overvalued, and therefore overlooked by a number of probable users in flat pricing scenarios.

The difference in value, even within categories of materials, can be staggering. By the same token, you simply could not put prices on every individual item in a setting like this. Fabric, for instance, comes to us in infinite different sizes, types, and conditions. There are also the factors, of need, affordability, and availability. In The Upcycle Exchange, if someone wants to take every last wine cork in stock, they understand that they are going to pay a little more for that privilege. If someone is crocheting hats for a homeless charity, they are encouraged to pay a little less for yarn than others normally do. Many locations offer fluctuating “bag” sales that let them keep control over the value/volume of their inventory. Bag sales run alongside normal participatory pricing, adding further flexibility for customers. Different versions of this story play out at individual upcycle exchange locations. Everyone comes to their own conclusions of real value organically, through a series of social interactions.

The flexibility of participatory pricing works to the advantage of both parties. The shop owners need only offer in-store credit to stock their shelves. So, there is no upfront cost of inventory, and they turn nearly 100% profit. Patrons pay far less than they would at a craft supply retailer, but ostensibly more than a garage sale. They are able to take exactly the amount of things they need home, since they can split up packages of items, cut fabrics, etc…generating less clutter and waste. They can also make space for themselves by bringing in unused materials that are on the store wish-lists, and receive a purchase credit to get something they do need in return. Credits average 25% of estimated selling price, but some stores choose other incentive systems.

In 2014, the experiment continues! Anyone who has opened, or plans to open, an upcycle exchange networks on a Facebook group, and are always bouncing ideas and sharing experiences. To learn more about opening an upcycle exchange, visit the Open Source Business Model page.


The Upcycle Exchange in St. Louis
The Upcycle Exchange in St. Louis
The Upcycle Exchange in St. Louis